Film Review: The Wave

Norway’s 2015 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film didn’t land the nom but lands solidly as an engrossing genre film.
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Filmmaker Roar Uthaug already has some hit features and award-winning global commercials behind him and The Wave will further his reputation. Yes, the film—notably story, structure and special effects—adheres to the letter of the well-worn natural-disaster genre recipe, but many other virtues lift it above the norm.

The setting and its cinematographic capture are spectacular: It’s the rustic and rugged area of the Geiranger fjord and its quaint town at the foot of a towering, steep rock-covered mountain, characteristic of this part of Norway. DP John Christian Rosenlund achieves terrific visual capture of the area, especially with the choice of many aerial shots along the coast.

But it’s the energetically paced story and the warm, emotionally resonant and believable characters (all blessed by fine, convincing performances) that carry the day and the nightmare that befalls. Forty-year-old geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) is leaving his longtime gig in Geiranger as part of a patrol team at the warning center which monitors mountain stability and seismic activity. He is on his last day in the village before he relocates with his family and dons a suit for a prestigious oil-company job.

But on this busy day as he cleans out office and home, Kristian senses that all is not normal on the mountain, as there are signs of alarming shifts of the plates. Meanwhile, wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), who holds a top-level job at the nearby local hotel, is there to greet the many tourists arriving for the important season.

Kristian alerts his team to the signs he has detected. They do closer scrutiny and also discover irregularities. Arvid (Fridtjov Såheim), Kristian’s colleague and the senior member of the team, and another put on their gear and go to a deep crevice to better monitor activity. Things grow scary.

Kristian, too, does his own monitoring—both from helicopter and on-site visits to the rocky mountainside. News is not good and the patrol’s closely watched computer monitors relay that a catastrophe looms. The rocky mountainside is on the verge of crashing into the fjord. A giant tsunami could ensue and generate a disastrous flooding of the entire area.

Kristian calculates that there’s only a short window of time to a worst-case scenario. He heads to Idun’s hotel with their kids, teen son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), a music and skateboard enthusiast who’s reluctant to leave the home and village he loves, and young daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande).

As the warning center sounds alarms, matters escalate. Sondre remains at the hotel and Julia goes with her dad back to the house. When the mountainside crashes, the expected and unexpected follow. A breathtaking denouement at the flooded hotel is a real cinematic achievement.

Uthaug keeps the story hurtling along at breakneck speed (also thanks to editor Christian Siebenherz’ skillful cross-cutting). But he also manages to inject the right doses of close-ups and emotional moments to ramp up the believable and worthy nature of his stricken characters and the reality of their horrific situation. (Historic stock footage early on conveys the actual threats of the unstable mountainsides that menace this deceptively gorgeous flood and tsunami-prone tourist district.)

Summit’s also-excellent tsunami and flood-themed 2012 disaster pic The Impossible, about the historic disaster in Thailand, proved that there was plenty of room to raise the standards of the genre. But The Wave, which should be seen on the big screen, is an even stronger perfect storm. Great visual effects are a boon and, as proven again here, it always helps to get exceptional performances from kids.

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